Motor racing in all forms has been a consuming
passion of each successive generation of car enthusiasts since the first
organized competition. The pioneers, by pitching car against car and driver
against driver, learned not only about their own skills and how well their
vehicles performed at the limit, but also about the durability of components.
In those days, racing really did improve the breed. In the years after
the Second World War, technological discoveries made in competition, including
better tires, oil and fuel, filtered down gradually to the ordinary family
saloon. In the following pages we will guide you through the classic years
of Formula One and the top class of professional motor racing. We also
take a look at the romance of long-distance rallying and examine lesser-known
activities like saloon-car racing, when cars just like the one dad drove
battled it out on the track every weekend.
As soon as two cars met, motor racing was invented. The
first organized competition was the Paris—Bordeaux—Paris road
race of 1895, won by Emile Levassor in a car of his own make. The average
speed was 15mph (24kph), but by 1900, in a similar race from Paris to
Lyons (Lyon), this rose to nearly 40mph (64kph). With little in the way
of progress except lack of tire technology, monster racing, cars were
soon thundering down dusty, unmade roads at up to 100mph (160kph).
Racing on public roads did not last long. Fatalities in the 1903 Paris-Madrid
and Gordon Bennett Trophy races created the need for dedicated circuits.
The world's first, Brooklands, opened in 1907; in the 1920s and 30s heroes
such as Birkin and the Bentley boys thundered around here and Le Mans.
On these closed circuits, the need for riding mechanics was gone. Single-seater
racing was born.
The golden age of racing
Think classic Grand Prix racer and you think 1930s Bugatti. But the greatest
era of single-seater racing was the 50s. This was the golden age: with
little to separate the crowds from the track apart from rows of straw
bales, the racing enthusiast could actually see his heroes at work, unfettered
by high cockpit sides, full-faced helmets or the drivers' need to dress
up as mobile billboards. While Fangio was still king of the hill on a
good day and a quiet American called Phil Hill took his first drives with
Ferrari, greats such as Stirling Moss, Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn
were at the peaks of their careers - and remained great mates, too. Grand
Prix racing had become so popular by the early 50s that crowds of 100,000
flooded to the two big races of the year at Silverslone. This ex-airfield
circuit was the home of British motor racing and hosted the British Grand
Prix and the British Empire Trophy. Even in those days, you had to be
through Buckingham or Bicester by 7.30am to make the start — and
little has changed.
This decade and the one after also saw the quickest evolution of racing
machinery. At the start, Alfa Romeo dominated the scene with the glorious
Tipo 158 and 159, but Ferrari, BRM and Mercedes continued to push the
tried and tested rear-engined formula, and Maserati's 250F - the classic
racing car — won the hearts of drivers and spectators alike. Mercedes
used its revolutionary W196 streamliners to steamroller the French Grand
Prix at Reims (Rheims) in 1954. But it was Cooper which turned the racing
world on its head by the end of the 50s with light, home-built rear-engined
The Chapman revolution
The man who had the greatest influence on Grand Prix cars and took racing-car
design into the 60s, having started building his own cars in the 50s,
was Colin Chapman. This structural engineer started racing with his Lotus
Six and Seven (still with us as the Caterham Seven).
Rallying from the 50s to the 70s
in the 50s usually meant long distance time trials where navigational
accuracy and not necessarily outright speed was the criterion. Crews of
two or three would battle through adverse conditions against an exhausting
time schedule, armed with little more than standard cars upgraded only
by extra lights and knobby tires. The most famous endurance events are
the winter Monte Carlo and Alpine rallies where machinery as diverse as
Sunbeam Rapiers, big and small saloons and sportscars, contemporary and
vintage, competed against each other. Many entries would be “works”
ones, from car makers anxious to prove their model’s reliability.
Later, in the 1960s, the Porsche 91 made its name as a durable car that
withstood all that long distance rallying could throw at it and the 911
remains the car to beat in historic rallying in the 90s.
There were rallies at a local level, accessible to anyone who had a car
and joined a motor club. These again were tests of navigational and timing
accuracy, not speed, often at night. No helmets or elaborate safety procedures
would be needed in those days when even such ungainly machinery as Austin
A90 Atlantics would have had a chance.
By the 70s, rallying the most people had come to mean ”stage rallies”.
These are essentially a series of rough-road sprints. Cars blast sideways
in crowd-pleasing power-slides, often on slippery shale or in treacherous
ice conditions, through a narrow, twisty course accessible to spectators.
The timed sections, or stages, range from a couple of miles to more than
30 (48 km), and the object is to get down them as fast as possible. The
navigator's job is to get driver and car to the start of each stage at
the right time, but in the frantic activity of negotiating the stage he
is more than mere ballast. Using maps or "tulip" diagrams, he
warns the driver of the severity of approaching comers, for advance reconnaissance
has often been banned. Shrewd navigation is needed on the road sections
between stages: these are subject to strict timing, too, and point loss
The premier event in Britain has always been the RAC Rally. By the end
of the 60s the Ford Escort was king, driven by such stars as Roger dark
and the "Flying Finns", Timo Makinen and Ari Vatanen.
Classic 50s rally car — Austin-Healey
The durability of the powerful, separate-chassis two-seater Austin-Healey,
launched in 1954, made it the favorite for long-distance rallies over
the Alps. Its first successes were with the Morley brothers. Rally legend
Timo Makinen first came to fame driving a "Big Healey". But
there was tremendous noise from the bellowing, three-litre straight-six
engine, and lack of suspension movement made for poor ground clearance
and a bone shaking ride.
First of the evolution specials — Stratos
With its show-ear derived styling and Ferrari V-six engine, the Stratos
was conceived with the sole purpose of winning rallies once Lancia's mainstay,
the front-wheel-drive Fulvia, had aged. This twitchy, short-wheelbase
homologation special (legend has it not even the requisite 500 were built)
won the World Rally Championship three times, from 1974-76, and was forerunner
of the short-lived, rally-specific Group B cars banned in 1986 for being
too dangerous. The Stratos's last win was in the 1979 Monte Carlo Rally.
racing has always been used by car makers – officially or not –
to prove the excellence of their products. “Win on Sunday, sell
on Monday” is the slogan. If Joe Public saw a car winning that he
perceived as being like his own, then brand loyalty was strengthened and
could even lead to new sales.
Saloon-car racing began soon after the Second World War, but even well
into the 50s, racing saloon cars were terrifying similar to their standard
counterparts. Perhaps the tires would be inflated, the hubcaps removed
and a helmet worn, but there would be little safety gear until the 60s.
Professionals such as Graham Hill, who started in saloon cars and continued
to race Jaguar MkIIs and Lotus Cortinas into the 60s, might wear overalls
or at least matching polo shirt and trousers, but for the rest it would
be everyday wear – taking a cue from 50s Grand Prix ace Mike Hawthorn
who always raced in a sports jacket and bow-tie.
As new models came on stream, so they would be pressed into service on
the tracks, becoming faster as more was learned about their tuning potential.
The powerful MkI and MkII Jaguars, first seen in 1957, were naturals,
as were to a lesser extent the six-cylinder Ford Zephyr and Zodiac, but
by the early 60s the Mini had started to creep on the grid, aided by John
Cooper of Formula 1 fame. The Mini was a landmark car in this respect;
racing people who started their careers in Minis include Ken Tyrell, James
Hunt and the great John Rhodes whose tire-smoking sideways cornering antics
are legend. Others who enjoyed rattling around in unsuitable old cars
included Stirling Moss and Jim Clark.
By the 60s, proper championships for touring and modified saloons had
become established, leading to exciting racing among Formula 2-engined
Escorts, for example, and to the birth of the extensively modified saloons
with the Group 2 and 4 BMW "Batmobiles" -and fearsome devices
such as the series of Biydenstein Vauxhalls fielded in 70s "Supersaloon"
racing by the larger-than-life Gerry Marshall.
America had evolved its own racing for "stock", or standard,
saloons. This had started as a 200-mile (322km) sand/Tarmac race at Daytona
Beach, Florida, in 1936. By 1959, the course had been transformed into
a purpose-built two-mile (3.2km) banked oval track in the same location,
and similar tracks sprang up all over the country under the auspices of
NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. By the end
of the 60s, "stock" cars were circulating at up to 200mph (322kph),
aided by careful attention to aerodynamics and the rule book.
In Sports Car Club of America racing, where cars had to turn right as
well as left, the AC Cobra/Corvette wars of the mid-60s gave way to multiround
contests between modified Mustangs and Camaros, making heroes of men like
Mark Donohue and Peter Revson.
Farther south, Mexico hosted the maddest road race ever, the 1,864 miles
(3,000km) Carrerra Panamericana. This flat-out spectacle, which included
a class for saloons among the diverse machinery taking part, was run annually
from 1950 until 1954, when the growing number of fatalities forced closure.
Since 1991, it has been run again as a retrospective road event.
in Competition Today
Classic motor sport has never been more popular.
Purists think it’s a shame to use up venerable old machinery, but
the pragmatic say racing cars were built to race.
Historic motor sport doesn’t have to mean big bucks or major tracks
extravaganzas; there are plenty of gentler sprints, hill climbs or rallies
populated by more modest machinery. Whatever the car, there’s an
extra-curricular activity you can do with it. Here are some of the activities
that enthusiasts get up to with their classics.
Not competition but open to anyone with a suitable classic (usually at
least 20 years old) and a road license, these are run by many clubs as
a way providing their major events with a focal point and also by large
organizations such as the RAC MSA which runs the UK’s largest annual
You can enter a production-car trial in pretty much anything with four
wheels – but the most stylish trials for classics are the ones operated
by Vintage Sports Car Club (VSCC), for cars made before 1930. The point
of a trial is to arrive at the right place at the right time and to clear
certain muddy hill climb without stopping. The winner is the driver with
Sprints and hill climbs
Within reason, you can sprint or hill climbs any classic, vintage or veteran
car you want. Only the most basic safety gear and the cheapest competition
license are needed. Each competitor embarks on two practice and two timed
runs on a short, usually twisty course.
Usually run at night, navigational rallies are tests of map-reading, navigation
and time-keeping. Although they aren’t speed events as such, an
accurate average must be kept.
There’s some navigation in these events, but only to get the car
to beginning of each special stage in good time – and then all hell
breaks loose. The stage, often narrow forest gravel tracks, is closed
to traffic, and the object is to get to the other end as fast as possible.
From the three-day Monte Carlo Challenge over the snowy Alps to the 10-week
London-Mexico, run in 1995 as a 25th anniversary of the first event, these
grueling runs demand meticulous car preparation and tremendous self-discipline
— but generate fantastic camaraderie between entrants.
Saloon car racing
Back to the glory days, pure and simple, with Anglias, BMW 2000s, and
Alfa GTAs and Minis scrabbling round on Dunlop racing tires in scenes
straight from the 60s.
Historic single-seater and sportscar
From ERA through Maserati 4CM and Alfa Monzas, including Blower Bentleys
and Mercedes SSKs, right up to fairly recent Formula 1 material, this
evocative, heady mix stirs up memories for everyone. In the sportscar
class, glorious packs of Lotus Elevens battle it out with Jaguar D-types,
Maseratis, Birdcages and Coopers too. But you have to be rich.